This time last week we were exploring one of the most toxic places in the world.
We climbed to the top of an abandoned apartment block that hasn’t been lived in since April 1986.
We walked on soil that has been infiltrated with deadly radioactive particles.
We went to a kindergarten and saw toys that had been dropped and never picked up again by kids who are now grown adults.
We stood under Duga radar, which was once one of the most powerful military facilities in the Soviet Union’s communist empire.
We walked through an amusement park that was built in 1985-6 but never used.
We saw newspapers laying on the floor of someone’s bedroom that dated back to 1985.
We walked through a kitchen where there were pots and pans that have been sitting untouched on a shelf for more than 30 years.
We drank vodka with a grandma who, despite all of the health risks, is choosing to live in one of the most dangerous places on earth.
We spent two full days exploring Chernobyl’s exclusion zone and witnessed, first-hand, the sheer devastation that was caused by the biggest nuclear plant disaster in history (if you’d like more info on what happened that night and the after-effects that are still being felt as a result of it today, check out this article).
So why did we want to visit Chernobyl?
It still feels a bit surreal that we did and saw all of the above.
Most people said we were crazy for wanting to visit a place that has been deemed unsafe for human habitation for at least 20,000 years so what intrigued us so much to want to visit?
The truth is that Chernobyl has always been a place that has fascinated us for a few different reasons.
The first is we were always keen to learn more about this abandoned place and the story behind it. We wanted to learn more about the dangers of nuclear power and the effect it can have on the world if something goes wrong again.
Secondly, we thought that getting to explore a city that has been abandoned by humans for over 30 years would give us a good understanding of what a post-apocalyptic world might look like.
We thought that walking around the zone would be like being on a real-world movie set.
Lastly, we thought it would be fascinating to see a place that is frozen in time from the soviet era.
Getting to see evidence of and learn about a culture that no longer exists is something of a rarity these days so it definitely made the tour all the more appealing for us.
But is it safe to visit Chernobyl today?
This was the question we got asked the most and it was a valid concern for us so we did a lot of research before we booked the tour and here’s what we uncovered.
It’s true that radiation in large doses can cause damage to the body’s tissue whilst increasing the risk of cancer but all sources we read stated that visitors can expect very minimal radioactive exposure.
In fact, most articles we read said that it’s hard to find radioactivity (in the places that are visited by tourists) that exceeds the background radiation that’s found in most cities in the world.
That said; the exclusion zone in Ukraine is made up of two parts – the 30KM zone and the 10KM zone – and the 10KM zone has many dangerous radioactive hotspots where the natural level of radiation can be exceeded by anything up to a 1,000 times.
The Red Forest is one such area.
It’s the pine forest that’s behind the power plant and all trees in the forest died after absorbing extremely high levels of radiation on the night of the accident.
Tours do not stop at the Red Forest or any of the other areas that are considered very dangerous radioactive hotspots.
We were brought to some areas where the radiation levels are higher than normal but we didn’t stay there for very long and there are lots of safety precautions that visitors need to take to ensure minimal exposure.
Did we feel scared?
In a word, yes (or I did anyway!). I just felt a little apprehensive about the whole thing as, assurances about the radiation levels being safe aside, it is still the location of one of the world’s worst nuclear disasters and it took me a while to get my head around the fact that we were actually going to go there on a tour.
Once we spoke with Alexandra from Gamma Travel (we did some research on tour companies and these guys came highly recommended) and she explained everything to us in terms of radiation levels and what to expect, I felt a little more relaxed about the whole thing.
What tour did we do?
We ended up doing the private 2 day/1 night tour instead of doing a group day tour like most people do.
The reason is we knew that one day just wouldn’t be enough to see everything we wanted to see.
Carlo got a new camera recently so he was eager to get that in action and take some amazing photographs that would hopefully capture the mood and the current situation there as best as possible.
Carlo’s sisters, Lucia and Claudia, were also joining us for the tour so we thought it would be a cool experience for all 4 of us to spend the night in one of the two hotels that are in Chernobyl today.
So where exactly is Chernobyl and what’s the best way to get there?
Chernobyl is approx. 135km north of Kyiv, the capital city of Ukraine.
Like most people, we flew into Kyiv and started our tour from there. Note that it’s important to book a tour to Chernobyl at least a couple of days before you plan to go as the tour companies need to get a special permit for each person from the government.
Day 1 Of Chernobyl Tour
We were picked up from our apartment at 8AM on a Monday morning and we began our journey north.
Natalie, our guide, was super nice and, in addition to giving us a briefing on the itinerary for the two days, she showed us a short documentary on the way which broke up the 2-hour journey.
Once we arrived at the entrance to the exclusion zone, we were scanned for radiation levels and each person was given a personal dosimeter (a device that measures the dose uptake of external ionizing radiation).
We were instructed to keep this around our necks at all times.
Our passports were checked by the officers and we were given some paperwork to sign.
The most important document was the safety sheet that outlined all measures that had to be taken by each individual to ensure minimal exposure whilst in the exclusion zone.
- Long sleeves and long pants must be worn at all times
- No open toe shoes allowed
- No smoking (only permitted in designated areas)
- No eating or drinking in the open air
- No sitting down on the ground
- Refrain from putting camera equipment or anything else on the ground
- Do not touch anything
- Do not wander off alone – visitors must be supervised at all times
- Do not take anything out of the exclusion zone when leaving
Papers signed, we crossed over the border and we were officially in the exclusion zone.
To avoid this post being 4,000+ words, I’m just going to list all of the places we visited on day one and two and I’ll insert some of the photos that Carlo captured;
Zalissya (it was the first village to be totally abandoned after the accident in 1986)
Chernobyl Memorial Complex
The site where all of the robots are
Fire station in Chernobyl town
We got within a couple of hundred metres from the power plant
Kindergarten in Chernobyl town
Explored some buildings in Chernobyl 2 (a top-secret Soviet military base)
That concluded the first day and we settled into one of the two hotels in Chernobyl at around 7PM.
We had dinner in the hotel and we spent the rest of the night chatting in the dark as it was very windy and the electricity went out.
There’s a curfew in Chernobyl so all guests are not allowed outside the hotel after 10PM.
Looking back, the curfew and lack of electricity both added to the experience and made it all the eerier!
Day 2 Of Chernobyl Tour
We had breakfast at 8 and we were on the road soon after. Here’s what we got to see on day two;
Pripyat (we visited Azure swimming pool, the city centre, an abandoned apartment block, the prison, the police station, one of the 5 secondary schools in the city and the amusement park)
We got to stand inside one of the cooling towers
We finished our day visiting Hanna Zavorotyna; one of the many babushkas who have returned to live in Chernobyl
We exited the exclusion zone at around 5 o clock. Everyone was scanned for radiation and Natalie collected the dosimeters that we’d been given when entering.
We boarded the bus and we were on our way back to Kyiv.
Natalie informed us that our radiation levels had been recorded and we’d received the same level of radiation that we’d receive had we spent 2 days in Kyiv or taken a 1-hour 40-minute flight.
We arrived back in Kyiv at approximately 7PM.
Our Top Tips for Visiting Chernobyl
- Do a private two-day tour if your time and budget allow it. We felt that we got so much more out of the experience with a private tour. We could stop to take photos whenever we wanted and ask Natalie all of the questions we had without worrying about hogging all of her attention.
The highlight of the trip, for us, was getting to sit and chat with Hanna and we wouldn’t have had that experience if we’d opted to do the one-day tour.
- Bring some snacks with you! You’ll be eating lunch in the canteen where the power plant workers eat and the food is just ok so bring some snacks with you just in case you’re still hungry.
- Mosquitos are everywhere so pack some repellent.
- Carry a rain jacket and, depending on the time of year, some sunscreen and a hat.
- Bring a torch or make sure you’ve enough battery on your phone to turn on the flashlight as you’ll need it when entering some of the buildings.
- Don’t leave Kyiv without toilet paper – no explanation needed!
- Wear comfortable shoes. There’s a lot of walking involved so be prepared.
- Bring bottles of water with you (although toilet breaks are limited so drink it sparingly).
- For the photographers among you, Carlo recommends bringing a tripod. He regrets not bringing one as it would have helped him to get better shots in situations where natural light was limited.
- Pack hand sanitiser or antibacterial wipes. If I was doing it again, I’d also pack one of those paper masks for a little extra protection against the dust.
So, would we recommend visiting?
Yes. It was one of the best tours we’ve ever been on and we enjoyed it from start to finish.
We learned so much about the history of what happened that night and we walked away knowing so much more about how nuclear energy works and what risks are involved with it.
What life was like during the Soviet era is so much clearer to us now.
Getting to see evidence of what children were being taught at school about the Americans and the outside world was eye-opening.
Walking through the nursery and seeing the little bunk beds where small children once napped made the disaster all the more real.
Knowing that people left their homes behind thinking they’d be returning in three days is harrowing and getting to see those homes and a family’s personal belongings strewn on the floor made it all the more so.
Getting to meet Hanna and hear her story was an experience none of us will forget.
Listening to how she had to leave her home and sneak back during the night a few days later was a tale everyone should hear.
It was hard to not feel privileged for the life that we lead when she told us about how her son and husband died and how her life has been filled with anguish and hardship.
Such a kind soul that has been through so much and, much like the rest of us, all she wants to do is live a simple life with her family in the home that she grew up in. Nothing more.
Despite knowing the dangers of radiation and what it’s doing to her health, she said she’d much rather live out her last days in her home over living in a much more comfortable house in Kiev.
How do we feel about Chernobyl now and would we do it again?
We felt a whole mix of emotions during our visit to Chernobyl.
Disbelief at what happened.
Anger that the people in power tried to cover it up.
Sorrow for the people that died.
Heartache for those whose lives have been changed forever as a result of the accident.
Gratefulness to those people that sacrificed their own lives to limit the damage for the rest of us.
Fear at the thought that an accident like this could happen again because it seems governments haven’t learned much from what happened that night.
It’s been a week since our visit and, having had some time to think about our time there, we would do another tour.
We feel like there is still so much to learn, so much to see and so much more to experience from spending time in an open-air museum like Chernobyl.
Day by day, the battle is on-going and nature is taking over the buildings in Pripyat so the area won’t be open to tourism forever.
And, besides all of that, it would be nice to sit down again with Baba Hanna again for one more shot of moonshine.